Watching the Krishna Lila performed in Delhi this week by the Shri Ram Bhartiya Kala Kendra was so moving, especially in an audience that related totally to this most beloved life, that it made me wonder about our penchant for happy endings.
Technically, the Krishnavatar ends on a note of 'grief' with the doom of his clan, the Vrisnis, and Sri Krishna’s own 'death' soon after. As he rests under a tree in the forest, the hunter, Jara, mistakes Krishna’s blue big toe for a pigeon’s head and sends an arrow through it. But Chakradhari Krishna’s work is done.
The Gita has been delivered, the great battle of Dharmakshetre Kurukshetre (the Gita’s opening words) has become an old tale, the Pandavas have ruled for years and Krishna himself is a grandsire. And meanwhile, the Krishna of Vraja vivifies our lives so endearingly.
Indeed, to imagine an India without Krishna dancing by the Yamuna, climbing the kadamb tree and playing His flute is impossible. If you were to put everything else on one side of a scale and say, "This is India!" it just wouldn’t balance.
You’d need to pick up a peacock feather, shut your eyes, think Govinda, Gopala, and gently add it to the scale to make it tilt right. Architecture, literature, art, dance, music, theatre, food, festivals, prayers, the very names of people: much that constitutes living Indian culture would not exist if you took away Krishna. This is simply a deep cultural fact, something that springs naturally and beautifully from our soil and belongs to every one of us.
But we need to understand the Maharaas for what it is: that God belongs to each soul and each soul belongs to God, expressed, as is instinctive for a singing, dancing people, through music and rhythmic movement. The Srimad Bhagvatam describes its birth: “On the night of the Autumn Moon (Sharad Purnima), when the air was sweet with scent of jasmine, the Lord was moved to compose His mystic dance.” We can only wonder at the magic of that night when Vanamaali (wildflower-garlanded) Krishna spun around with the gopis. It’s curious how that spin was given new life by the Sufis — they say it was Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi who introduced the concept of the whirling dervish. We’ve danced ourselves every year without fail since millennia, through Holi and Janmashtami.
This deep cultural preference for happiness over sorrow reflects in our Bollywood happy endings, though time has obscured the fact that this preference lies in our desi approach to Divinity. This mindset was apparently formalised in the conventions of ancient Sanskrit drama — dreadful things could happen to a character in the course of the play, but the playwright had an emotional responsibility to the public. He had to stop his narrative at a point of hope so that the audience could leave with a life-af firmed feeling.
This is interestingly different from that other ancient tribe whom we still call Yavana (Ionians or Greeks), whose theatre demanded an effect of catharsis (emotional cleansing) through evoking pity and terror in the audience. Both traditions had the deus ex machina (the god from a machine), literally the sudden appearance of a deity to save a character from a nasty fate, when past human aid. In the Krishna Lila, the most thrilling instance of this of course is Draupadi’s vastra-haran.
Later on, the classic-to-contemporary link seems to have happened quite organically with the first Indian movie ever and consequently, the first Indian movie in many regional languages being Raja Harishchandra and the mythological becoming the first film genre, further relayed into TV’s greatest nation-stopping serials: the Ramayana and the Mahabharata! Basically, our myths are us: without them, life seems a howling wilderness bereft of colour, joy and beauty.